Did Covid virus escape from Wuhan institute? How lab-leak theory of origin moved from fringe to center
House Republicans recently released a bombshell report outlining “significant circumstantial evidence” that the novel coronavirus originated in a bio-safety level 4 (BSL-4) lab in Wuhan, China. The report also alleged that Washington “may have funded or collaborated” in research that possibly led to the outbreak. In recent weeks, widely held suspicions have gone from being brushed off as fringe conspiracy theories to gaining more credibility every day.
The Wall Street Journal reported over the weekend how US intelligence had reason to believe three researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) fell ill and were hospitalized in November 2019, lending further credence to the theory of a lab leak. While the hypothesis is far from proven, it is at least as well-grounded as the original narrative of an infection that was naturally transmitted from a bat to a person.
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Former President Donald Trump claimed vindication on Tuesday, May 25, for having previously warned that the pathogen may have originated in a lab in Wuhan. He also defended his controversial use of the term "China virus".
"Now everybody is agreeing that I was right when I very early on called Wuhan as the source of COVID-19, sometimes referred to as the China Virus," Trump said in a statement. "To me, it was obvious from the beginning but I was badly criticized, as usual. Now they are all saying 'He was right.' Thank you!" he added.
Trump and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo were some of the first people to sound the alarm about the introduction of the deadly virus, albeit their calls were laced with anti-Chinese rhetoric. In April and May last year, both leaned towards the idea that the virus came from a lab and not some animal wet market. Trump said he had a “high degree of confidence” in the lab leak theory.
However, this latest development would come as a shock to anybody who had been following news coverage surrounding the origins of the virus. Several mainstream journalists outright dismissed the lab-leak hypothesis as a right-wing conspiracy theory.
However, the shift began when 18 of the world's top scientists challenged the World Health Organization's "superficial" probe that concluded that a lab leak was "extremely unlikely." They demanded a "proper investigation" since there was no evidence to support the theory that the pathogen simply leaped from bats onto humans.
Subsequently, former New York Times science reporter Nicholas Wade wrote a bombshell essay detailing the science that lends credence to the lab-leak theory and highlighting the real possibility that the NYC-based EcoHealth Alliance may have received federal funding to pay for "gain of function" virus research at the WIV.
According to the New York Post, EcoHealth president Peter Daszak has been one of the most vocal deniers of the lab-leak theory. The newspaper reported how he organized a Lancet letter attacking the hypothesis and, rather ironically, served on the WHO team that was chosen to "investigate" what happened in Wuhan.
Now, both Anthony Fauci and Centers for Disease Control chief Rochelle Walensky have conceded that the ongoing global health crisis may have originated in WIV. But despite the cobwebs being slowly removed, China has blatantly refused to allow an independent probe into the lab or its records.
According to The Post, it takes time for a virus to adapt before it can "jump" across species, and it would likely infect at least one intermediate species before being able to infect humans. However, more than 80,000 animal samples from the first infected areas of China were tested negative for COVID-19. Meanwhile, the bat species most likely to transmit coronaviruses reportedly dwells more than 1,000 miles away from Wuhan and would have been in hibernation when the virus broke out.
"That this particular coronavirus showed up seemingly out of nowhere, perfectly suited to attack humans, would be quite the mystery if it hadn’t first popped up in a city with two virology institutes that were studying bat coronaviruses," wrote The Post's editorial board, noting that House Republicans had deemed these studies constituted “dangerous research” that was conducted without “necessary safety protocols.”
Shi Zhengli, one of the top scientists in the Wuhan lab, was recognized by MIT for her work in “gain of function” research, which involves developing vaccines by first manipulating a pathogen to become more dangerous and gain the ability to attack human cells. Zhengli's research was reportedly conducted in a room with only the same level of sanitary and safety measures as a dentist's office in the United States. Speaking to Scientific American, she said that on hearing about the first COVID-19 infections in Wuhan, her first thought was to wonder if her lab was the source of the outbreak.
In January 2020, while Congress sparred over the first impeachment of former President Trump, Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton was begging the White House to pay more attention to the novel coronavirus epidemic in China. He warned about the Chinese Communist Party's narrative that it had originated from a wet market in Wuhan, and noted how the city was also home to WIV - China's only BSL-4 lab that was known by the scientific community to conduct experiments on novel coronaviruses.
At the time, Cotton's queries were written off by the federal government and the media, albeit there was enough circumstantial evidence to warrant an investigation. According to the Washington Examiner, the "closest known genetic cousin" of SARS-Cov-2 is RaTG13, a coronavirus with a "96.1% nucleotide similarity." RaTG13 was reportedly discovered in a remote region more than 1,000 miles away from Wuhan and was brought back to the WIV lab by Zhengli.
Chinese media, which is largely state-controlled, was reportedly discussing improper waste disposal at the WIV and its employees selling lab animals on the black market prior to the outbreak. Furthermore, cell phone use in the facility reportedly stopped for three weeks in October 2019, indicating a work halt, evacuation, or decontamination order, per the New York Post.
While the aforementioned claims are yet to be proven, it is obvious that China has a lot of questions to address. Similarly, the Fauci-led National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases has a lot of explaining to do, especially after it emerged that it had poured millions of US taxpayer dollars into coronavirus research in Wuhan, according to Newsweek.